Researcher profile


Professor Kevin Sullivan

Introducing Kevin Sullivan 

Professor Sullivan’s research interests lie in the molecular basis of chromosome movement in mitosis, at the centre of which are centromeres, the chromosomal sites which generate the motor and regulatory machinery powering chromosomes during cell division.   Though his work may have brought him far from home, his research has never strayed from its earliest roots.  

“The centromere links the DNA of the chromosome to structures called microtubules that generate the force for moving chromosomes in cell division. While I was working on my PhD on microtubules at the University of Santa Barbara there was a geneticist working on DNA of the centromere in the lab next to me,” he recalls.   “I am still there scientifically, between the microtubule and the DNA, examining what my work put me in touch with 20 years ago.”

Sullivan’s move from the world-class Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California was made possible by a combination of funding support from Science Foundation Ireland and the existence of the Genome Stability Cluster which enabled Sullivan’s research to remain on course through a rich concentration of laboratories with related interests.  

Sullivan and his colleagues in the Department of Biochemistry, the home of the Genome Stability Cluster, are currently seeking to reach a greater understanding of the assembly and regulation of the centromere in human cells, to explore regulation of chromosome function in the cell cycle through dynamic modification of chromatin and protein assembly processes.   His work has the potential to enable the development of new cancer therapeutics into the future.  

“Cancer, in one sense, is a disease of unregulated cell division. The centromere is one of the keys to cell division. By learning how to prevent or alter centromere function, our work could lead to new ways to halt or disrupt cell division and stop tumor growth.

Sullivan's distinguished career

Having grown up in southern California, Sullivan graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara with a B.A. in Pharmacology in 1978 and a PhD in 1983.   His PhD looked at the biochemical aspects of development studying the cytoskeletal protein tubulin.   From there Sullivan shifted his focus from the biochemical to the molecular biology of tubulin genes while completing postdoctoral research at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland.   The research that Sullivan is currently working on is a continuation of his interests developed at Johns Hopkins as it was there he began to apply molecular biological approaches to analysis of the human centromere.   Because of the link between microtubules and centromeres in cell division, it was a natural progression then for Sullivan to shift his focus to understanding how centromeres work using the tools of molecular and cellular biology.

Over the past year, Sullivan has been heavily involved in the planning and development of a Cancer Biology Institute, a research partnership between NUI Galway and Trinity College Dublin and University College Cork.   The CBI aims to pursue world class cancer research in the context of the development of a comprehensive cancer centre in Galway, an interdisciplinary programme linking of best clinical practice, medical education and research.   Using his experience as a molecular cell biologist, Sullivan will guide establishment of the technical heart of the institute’s research, enabling the development of new therapies by examining cells at a molecular level.

“I will be involved in putting new technology on the ground, implementing an awesome new way to look at cells that will allow existing research programmes to develop new science that will drive discovery from the diverse groups within the research centre.”

“Our first goal is always knowledge, generating value to Ireland.   Our other real goal is to train scientists to the highest standards.”

In addition to his contribution to cancer research, Sullivan has also been involved in the development of two graduate programmes in cancer biology; one is based here at NUI, Galway and the other is a collaborative effort with UCD, UCC and Trinity; both are currently being established.   The concept of integrated training and research for biologists is one that Sullivan strongly supports.

“Our first goal is always knowledge, generating value to Ireland.   Our other real goal is to train scientists to the highest standards.”

Though the focus of his research may not have changed dramatically over the years, Sullivan’s knowledge of and perspective on centromeres has altered dramatically.  

“The centromere has gone from being an image taken from an electron microscope to containing an entire catalogue of over 50 different proteins all with different functions.   It’s like going from a view of Ireland from the moon, just a dot on the globe, to standing in the country with a map in your hands.”   It seems Sullivan has covered quite a distance after all.

“The more time I have spent at my research, the more complex the puzzle has become.   The science is continually growing more intricate and more interesting from that perspective.”

Kevin Sullivan

Kevin Sullivan